In the City of Sylvia
Twenty five years ago the philosopher Gilles Deleuze said that if we see very few things in the image, it’s that we don’t know how to read it properly. Recently, cognitive psychologists have proved the point through rigorous testing: ‘these experiments suggest that film viewers have only minimal commitment to the particular details that inhabit filmic space.’
What has all this to do with José Luis Guerin’s fascinating and brilliant In the City of Sylvia? Quite a lot if we consider that Guerin is as interested in the richness of cinematic space as in the furtherance of a character-driven story. Paying great attention to the sights and sounds of Strasbourg, Guerin creates less a central character (Xavier Lafitte) than a passive receptacle for the absorption of that filmic space. As the young artist wanders round its streets, sits in cafes sketching the faces of people who hold his attention, or searches for the Sylvia of the title, so the film offers an essay on perception. In most films we know by the end the outcome of the story but know almost nothing about the space in which it’s been filmed: Guerin reverses this hierarchy. Indeed the film would make a great double bill with the knowingly spatially lazy Vicky Cristina Barcelona as Woody Allen pushes the story along at a brisk pace and allows us only to see the titular city’s highlights.
A Barcelona-born experimental filmmaker in his late 40s working in both documentary and fiction, Guerin is a playful and intelligent filmmaker. Anyone who has seen his 2001 film about reconstructing a city space En Construcción, or his astonishing Train of Shadows from 1997, about an amateur silent filmmaker from the past who goes missing and whose footage is explored in the present, will recognise a master. So many films have the air of sightseeing, with the images ticked off on our way to the next plot point; Guerin dawdles over his as he allows In the City of Sylvia to become an unhurried delight.
GFT, Glasgow, Sat 28–Tue 31 Mar. Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 3–Thu 9 Apr.